How the real-life inspiration for Moby Dick surfaced on the big screen

The Takeaway
A promotional image from In the Heart of the Sea

"In the Heart of the Sea" documents the true story of the Essex whaling ship, which became the inspiration for the ship in Moby-Dick.

Courtesy of Warner Bros.

On November 20, 1820, a Nantucket whaling ship named the Essex was on a routine expedition when it was suddenly struck by an 80-ton sperm whale in the middle of the South Pacific.

The ship, which was led by a 29-year-old captain named George Pollard, Jr., was destroyed, leading the crew on an epic journey of fate, fear and cannibalism. Their tale of survival would eventually serve as inspiration for Herman Melville’s "Moby Dick."

The true story of the Essex has also been documented by Pulitzer Prize-nominated historian Nathaniel Philbrick in his book "In the Heart of the Sea." Fast forward nearly 200 years after the Essex disaster, and Philbrick's book, has been adapted for the big screen.

The Hollywood version of "In the Heart of the Sea," directed by Ron Howard and featuring action star Chris Hemsworth as Essex First Mate Owen Chase, has just opened nationwide.

In writing “In the Heart of the Sea,” Philbrick says that he wanted to convey just how exciting and terrifying the voyage of the Essex really was.

“Whaling was tough,” Philbrick says. “But the assumption is you kill the whales. With the Essex disaster, the whale, incredibly, turns it around on them and they became the prey.”

When the whale rammed the Essex, Philbrick says the sailors faced an existential crisis and wondered if God had betrayed them. After the ship sank, the 20-man crew faced down a horrifying situation when they were forced to drift in three small boats for more than 90 days. And it is that vulnerability that so intrigued Philbrick.

“That’s the thing that I think is amazing to us in the 21st century — we’re so insulated from the world by our technology,” he says. “We have Google Maps to lead us places. These guys had nothing.”

Unlike others that had come before them, the members of the Essex crew did not consider themselves explorers in search of glory and adventure.

“These guys were fishermen on a voyage that went very bad,” Philbrick says. “They were just trying to make a living, and here they were.”

Adrift alone in the ocean, the men of the Essex wound up fighting more than just the elements.

“It looked like they were going to die of dehydration, but they washed up on an island almost 3,000 miles off of South America — where they’re trying to get to,” says Philbrick. “They find water, they find birds, and bird eggs, so it’s OK. But they realize after a few weeks that they’re clear cutting this place and they’re going to starve to death eventually.”

After exploring the small island, the crew found the human skeletons of those that came before them. Like Hemsworth’s character in the film, Philbrick says Owen Chase was “wired to be a whaleman” — he was a tough and strong-willed person that encouraged the men of the Essex to continue on.

“[Chase] is the one that says, ‘Look, we can’t stay here, we have to keep going,’” Philbrick says. “Can you imagine this? They almost died already and they’re in the middle of nowhere and he says, ‘Let’s get in those boats and go to South America,’ which is thousands of miles away. They agree with him, and they do it.”

Only five crew members of the original 20 sailors aboard the Essex survived after they departed that island in their three small lifeboats.

“The boats would all get separated and one would never be found again,” Philbrick says. “[Captain] Pollard’s boat would be reduced to just two guys — Pollard and a teenager — and they would be found sucking the bones of their dead shipmates. Chase and two others would survive.”

The five survivors went on to preserve the story of the Essex. Pollard told the legendary tale to a group of fellow whaling captains on the evening of his rescue, and one of the men listening recorded his tale.

“It’s almost a transcript of what [Pollard] told them,” Philbrick says. “It’s just amazing — he goes into the detail of the cannibalism and their sufferings. That panic letter that went out was copied, and that was the first word.”

The real-life Owen Chase, who died in 1869, suffered from what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder — he began to hide food in the attic of his house and was eventually ruled insane. Another survivor, Thomas Nickerson, the 14-years-old cabin boy of the Essex, denied late in life that the crew turned to cannibalism.

But when Chase returned to Nantucket in June 1821 — just a few months after they were rescued — he decided to tell the world his story.

“By that fall, with the help of a ghost writer, he had written and published what is one of the great true narratives of the Essex,” says Philbrick.

It was that narrative that would inspire Herman Melville to write “Moby Dick.” Though he had heard the tale of the Essex before, in 1840, Melville met a young man from Nantucket named William Henry Chase — the teenage son of Owen Chase — who gave him a copy of his father’s story.

“The reading of this wondrous story upon the landless sea and close to the very latitude of the shipwreck had a surprising effect on me,” Melville once recounted.

This story first aired as an interview on PRI's The Takeaway, a public radio program that invites you to be part of the American conversation.